At one of my workplaces, a client routinely presents the staff with unsolicited “important reading material”. These long, formal letters, addressed to third parties but cc’d for our attention, implicate major news events and miscellaneous personal encounters in a vast campaign of human rights violations visited upon the author over the last quarter century. By her own admission in these widely disseminated letters, the author was diagnosed at the outset of this campaign with paranoid schizophrenia, removed from her position, placed on disability, and hospitalized–all actions that confirmed for her precisely how far major institutions were willing to go to silence her over the data she was gathering on government schemes.
As one might surmise, I don’t recycle these letters immediately, though there is a certain kindness to just politely accepting and then disposing of such troubled material. I don’t skim through these materials to scoff at the author, though. Rather, I even make the mentally precarious choice of going through some of these letters with a highlighter, noting key passages and turns of phrase, before putting them all to rest.
Now, some might say that’s a writer’s instinct–a fascination with the rhetoric and vernacular of a person so intent on rationalizing the irrational, on writing and rewriting their personal narrative in every possible light in order to make sense of it all. This would, however, be a superficial read: If anything, these letters–in their eloquence, precision, and overall cohesion–blur the line between “madness” and the compulsion experienced by many writers considered “sane”–the drive, that is, to narrate trauma (personal, societal, environmental) into something restorative, something clarifying and coherent and maybe even edifying.
In other words, I actually find this author to be an intelligent, well-read person; between wild assertions about vast conspiracies, she moves effortlessly from historical to philosophical to literary to academic reference–a wealth of critical knowledge in this case turned horribly against her ability to perceive excessive pattern recognition for what it truly is. If only for this reason, then, I find something in her mental health struggle–relentless, myopic, and with such an acute awareness of women’s history (especially regarding institutionalization as a means of social control)–that resonates well beyond the extreme conclusions she draws about the world around her.
(And yes, her conclusions are extreme, including the existence of a secret UN code conveyed by her dentist, the pain in her teeth affirming Canada’s complicity in global human rights violations; a system of signals that makes a past employer culpable in the mass murder of young women; speeches by past PMs meant to impart coded awareness of the vendetta against her; a university plot to partner her children with entirely the wrong sort of people, making for mediocre marriages and impacting the wellbeing of her grandchildren; covert meetings with UN representatives at her convenience store; and a secret text left by a famous philosopher’s family for her alone to find and read.)
Indeed, the overall thrust of her argument is belief in a coherent, far-reaching order to the universe. It’s an order working against her, granted; one at every turn striving to suppress her work, isolate her from her communities, and otherwise besmirch her good name with mental health labels–but an order just the same. And so she reacts to it by ordering her thoughts as systematically as she can–suggesting, perhaps, a persisting confidence that, even if the world is out to get her, it is doing so through a level of organization that can still be defeated by organization–that is, the correct ordering of words and narrative constructs–in turn.
In reading her work, then–and I call it “work” because the writing, tragically, is every bit as methodical and rife with citation as any academic article I’ve read as of late; a testament to a brilliant mind trapped too far down the rabbit hole of theoretical constructs I encounter in my own studies–I’m left with two reactions. The first is a sense of there but for the brain’s diverse neural quirks go I, while the second is the emergence of troubling questions: What narrative loops might I be trapped in, likewise without realizing it, having relied too long on certain systems of thought? Where might I be spinning my wheels in place, under the misguided belief that, with enough retelling of certain stories in new contexts, the truth will eventually out?
The Stories I Tell
I find myself ruminating on the folly of doing the same thing over and over, either on compulsive autopilot or out of the genuine belief that the result is sure to be different next time, or the time after that, or the time after that, because in the last two weeks I have had to come to terms with the fact that my writing is simply not up to snuff. Put a gentler, more bureaucratic way: I have insufficiently grown to meet the evolving demands of my stories–whether they be academic, fictional, or personal.
For the purpose of successfully conveying my dissertation research to my committee, I thus have to re-learn how to write academic work. For the purpose of doing right by the ideas I want to wrangle with in fiction, I likewise have to re-learn how to write with an attention to detail and character that is most certainly not lacking in my day-to-day experience of the world.
But above all else, for the purpose of being simpatico with the forms in which I’m writing, I need to re-learn which stories are the stories I want to tell, which stories are worth telling, and which stories are not, in some sense, simply acts of self-erasure.
This should be easier than it seems, especially when one of my jobs–at a local bookstore–offers incessant reminders that, in the long run, nobody else is really going to care; in the long run, the world is full-to-bursting with excellent and mediocre writers alike, with so many from each category achieving their moment in the spotlight and then finding themselves remaindered, forgotten, past their prime. But somehow the reminder that I am, ultimately, writing only for myself makes this situation harder–because what I have come to realize is that there is something worse than aimlessness in what I write: There is cowardice, and a refusal to be fully present in my own stories, my own texts.
Indeed, Mark Doty’s words, which have followed me through many of my greatest hardships, seem indelibly writ upon the bone at times like this–“We all have reasons / for moving. / I move / to keep things whole.” And to be fair, I have as of late tried to confront this cowardice directly, to centre it in the stories I tell. But there is something about even this effort that only exacerbates the problem: Is it to cowardice and absence that I really want to dedicate my time and literary output?
As a teen and very young adult, I focussed on sincerity in my poetry–openness seeming fundamental to good work. Whether that was wise or misguided, in fiction it never really translated; the aversion to being seen as “writing from life”, when I so dreaded the thought of being reduced to my personal struggles, yielded minimalist prose. I had my Carver period without ever quite grasping the nuances of Wolff or Rash, followed by a love of Iris Murdoch that often matched lean prose with pointed moral indictments of characters who, simply by struggling to be good, thought that they were good. (Thank goodness I hadn’t read any George Eliot at that time, or the novel I wrote then, about a set of characters with competing self-delusions, would have been an even worse screed against human folly.)
I knew neither style would “sell” (not in my hands, at least), but the more damning conceit, really, is that I continued submitting such work even as I read plenty of contemporary fiction and disliked most of it. I especially hated the telegraphing flashbacks that made up the bulk of contemporary short fiction, character motivations spelled out in lush, self-centred sentences instead of illustrated through forward momentum. I wanted stories that followed seamlessly from a given thesis, such that all ensuing events were simply compelled towards an inevitable end. I even tried to sell a novel written in such a sparse register (a terrible attempt to merge my aesthetics with Canadiana, in the form of a Northern Ontario bildungsroman that treats its protagonist harshly for her naive expectations of life) and only after over fifteen literary agents didn’t even deign to reject the work did it strike me that I needed to master short stories first.
So I wrote plenty of short stories, in a wide range of forms, but only made progress with science fiction. Even then, I have been mindful of my slings and arrows therein: I’d get accepted somewhere, and then find it even harder to submit to that place again, gripped with a cold-sweated conviction that the first acceptance was just a fluke, and I’d soon enough be found out for the hack that I was. (And this, despite the fact that I have full enthusiasm even for negative reviews, which is most of what I’ve had to date; I welcome the opportunity they provide for self-reflection and improvement, so the disconnect is puzzling.)
Regardless, I’ve had plenty of silly periods. I once staunchly declared a commitment to mediocrity on the path to eventual improvement (and if not for this, granted, likely wouldn’t have submitted as much work in the first place). I also openly gave up submitting literary/mainstream/general fiction a couple years ago, which doesn’t at all account for the (futile) fact that I have literary/mainstream/general fiction in submission queues today.
And then there were times when fiction was painful–when the very idea of writing was intolerable, ill as I was, or when the only writing I could do focussed on a limited range of emotions and experiences, particularly around self-erasure. Those are sad times to reflect upon, even as some of the work I wrote therein did in fact sell. However, I was treading water myself–at best–and as such have an excuse for creative stagnation then.
I don’t want to be treading water anymore, though. I need to keep growing, and that requires taking stock of the storytelling routines I’ve clung to for so long. For three years, for instance, I worked on a story about fence-sitting, and with it, the trouble with storytelling itself. In part, I knew all along that this intended novel was an indictment of myself, and uneasily noted the number of short stories written in the same time period that, in one way, shape, or form, negotiated similar themes of passivity, indecision, cowardice, and misdirected energy.
Recently, I had to let that story go–its protagonist, always intentionally passive, ultimately too passive, in too didactic a narrative, for the piece to warrant further investment of time and energy. It’s a loss, to put aside a world in which one has dwelled for so long, but I keep hoping I can make it constructive in the end–by recognizing what the story’s failure is telling me.
What Things Might Come
Frozen, afraid to act, afraid to move forward in case my moving forward causes harm: the recapitulation in fiction of my own follies, while not surprising, is certainly a bit difficult to accept–not least because self-awareness on this accord poses difficult, but obligatory questions about next steps. Specifically:
Do I continue writing the stories that are most familiar to me–and yet also, the most easily suffocated (stylistically, structurally) by my desire to keep up a wall between myself and my fictions?
Or do I learn to write stories that depict an approach to life entirely unlike (and surely better than) the one I know best?
This second option raises its own questions of cause and effect: Can I write such stories–genuinely, compellingly–without first re-learning how to be? Or would one act (gradually) come to inform the other? Over time, with considerable commitment, could the writing of such stories effect changes in my own approach to life?
No, I don’t ask such questions imagining a saccharine story of personal transformation through dedication to more uplifting fiction. Quite the opposite, in fact: I am a creature of Dostoevsky, not Tolstoy; human frailty, madness, eccentricity, and survivable (if not surmountable) failure are all more kindred to me. And so it simply frustrates me that, for all the intimacy with which I’ve known these gradations of the human experience, I haven’t yet learned how to write on them–in any form–with the honesty, compassion, and fullness of feeling they all deserve.
But at least I know now what I do not know. And difficult as I know this next leg of the journey will be–breaking down all my familiar archetypal turns, all my surefire narrative crutches, and allowing vulnerability and compassion (not criticism) to coexist on the page–I am ready to learn.
I have to hope that will be enough.